BISHKEK/OSH -- Kyrgyzstan awoke to the startling news that one of its most controversial politicians, Osh Mayor Merlis Myrzakmatov, had been fired from his post.
A spokesman for Kyrgyz Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiev said a decree on Myrzakmatov's dismissal was signed early on December 5.
Myrzakmatov, 44, presided over the southern city during deadly ethnic clashes in 2010, and had come to embody the entrenched north-south divide that has shaped much of Kyrgyz politics.
His ouster comes just three days after he joined protests in support of a fellow southerner
, former parliament speaker Akmatbek Keldibekov, who was arrested last month for alleged financial crimes.
Myrzakmatov was the sole remaining official in power with strong ties to Kyrgyzstan's ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiev. Bakiev fled the country in 2010 amid massive public demonstrations accusing him of corruption and other crimes.
Lawmaker Omurbek Tekebaev, a noted Bakiev critic, suggests Myrzakmatov was likely fired because of his unseemly participation in the Keldibekov protests and open criticism of the government.
"During any protest actions in Osh, the mayor's main task is to prevent lawlessness and unrest, and to hold accountable anyone calling for trouble," he says. "Maybe Myrzakmatov fails to understand the interests of the state and the need for security. It looks like that's why the prime minister decided to sack him."
The dismissal sparked instant outrage in Osh, where the beefy Myrzakmatov enjoys strong support among Kyrgyz residents in the ethnically diverse
Protesters quickly gathered outside the city administration building, demanding an explanation for the ouster. Some 200 police wearing helmets and armed with rubber truncheons were called in to prevent the crowd from entering the building.
Alimzhan Baigazakov, the city's acting mayor, told demonstrators that Myrzakmatov would address their concerns on December 5. Myrzakmatov, who is currently in Bishkek, has offered minimal comment on his dismissal, telling the BBC only that he "agreed" with the prime minister's decision.
Some political observers, interpreting Myrzakmatov's unusual silence, have suggested that his removal is only temporary and may pave the way for his quick return to the post following the passage of a new election law.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev is currently considering whether to sign off on legislation that would provide for the mayors of the two biggest cities, Osh and Bishkek, to be elected by the local city councils, rather than directly appointed by the president.
If signed in the coming weeks, the law could pave the way for elections in both cities as early as January. (Bishkek Mayor Isa Omurkulov, who is under investigation
for alleged abuse of office, resigned this week.
Myrzakmatov, whose Uluttar Birimdigi party holds a simple majority on the Osh city council, is likely but not guaranteed to win any such election.
Atambaev is expected to back a candidate from his own Social Democratic Party. The ruling regime is seen as eager to erase Myrzakmatov from the political landscape before 2015 parliamentary elections, when the support of Osh's 1 million-strong electorate will be crucial.
But Bishkek-based political analyst Mars Sariev thinks Myrzakmatov has other plans, and that he left the Osh mayoral post "fully intending to return."
"Myrzakmatov is a skilled politician, and he understands how to behave in any political situation," he says. "He's taking a pause in order to take part in Osh mayoral elections and win. I don't think that anyone else can win these elections. The people with power win."
Myrzakmatov has already faced down previous attempts by Bishkek to remove him from power, drawing on his massive influence at home to frighten rivals to the north with threats of a southern rebellion.
Myrzakmatov, who came to power in 2009, is not universally popular in Osh, where the city's ethnic Uzbeks say he did little to promote reconciliation following the deadly 2010 clashes, which left 400 people dead, most of them Uzbeks.
Some in the Uzbek community allege that the mayor may have even had a hand in orchestrating the conflict, which appeared to ignite spontaneously.
Myrzakmatov, who penned his own account of the clashes, "I Seek The Truth," has denied any role in masterminding the 2010 bloodshed.
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondents Shaiyrbek Erkin in Bishkek, and Ernist Nurmatov in Osh